Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro. Picture: REUTERS/ADRIANO MACHADO
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro. Picture: REUTERS/ADRIANO MACHADO

Porto Velho — Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro said on Tuesday that he is open to discussing G7 aid for fighting fires in the Amazon if his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron “withdraws insults” made against him.

Bolsonaro’s remarks come amid an escalating war of words with Macron over the worst fires in years that have sparked a global outcry and threatened to torpedo a huge trade deal between the EU and South American countries.

Hours earlier, a top Brazilian official had rejected the G7 countries’ offer of $20m to combat the fires devastating the forest in Brazil and Bolivia, saying Macron should take care of “his home and his colonies”.

“Mr Macron must withdraw the insults he made against me,” Bolsonaro told reporters in the capital Brasilia. “To talk or accept anything from France, with the best possible intentions, he has to withdraw these words, and from there we can talk.”

Macron and Bolsonaro have repeatedly locked horns in the past week, with the French leader accusing Bolsonaro of lying to him about his commitments on climate change and vowing to block the EU-Mercosur trade deal involving Brazil that took decades to negotiate.

On Monday, Macron condemned “extraordinarily rude” comments made about his wife Brigitte by Bolsonaro a day earlier.

Bolsonaro has hit back, accusing Macron of treating Brazil like “a colony or no-man’s land”. The latest official figures show 1,659 new fires started in Brazil between Sunday and Monday, taking the total this year to 82,285 — the highest since at least 2013 — even as military aircraft and troops help battle the blazes.

More than half the fires are in the massive Amazon basin. Bolsonaro — a climate-change sceptic — has faced criticism at home over his delayed response to the fires and thousands have protested in Brazil in recent days to denounce the destruction.

Best-selling Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho took to the internet to apologise — in French — for Bolsonaro’s behaviour. “This is a rather sad video to ask forgiveness of my French friends for the crisis — I would even say the hysteria of Bolsonaro regarding France, the French president, the French president’s wife,” he said in a message posted on Twitter. “As Amazonia burns, they have no argument except to insult, deny, say anything to avoid taking responsibility.”

‘Under control’

In the hard-hit north-western state of Rondônia, thick smoke has choked the capital Porto Velho in recent days as fires blacken swathes of the rainforest. Defence minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva said on Monday that the fires were “under control.… It has been exaggerated a little that the situation was  out of control — it wasn’t. The situation isn’t simple but it is under control.”

Nearly 2,500 troops and 15 aircraft, including two C-130 Hercules, have been deployed, according to the defence ministry, which has published satellite data it says shows a reduction in the number of fires in the nine states spanning the Amazon. More than 43,000 troops were available to help put out fires, the government said previously.

Images posted on the presidential office Twitter account on Monday showed firefighters wearing bright orange or yellow clothing using water backpacks to douse flames. Experts say increased land-clearing during the months-long dry season to make way for crops or grazing has aggravated the recurring problem this year.

Although about 60% of the Amazon is in Brazil, the vast forest also spreads over parts of eight other countries or territories, including the French overseas territory of Guiana on the continent’s north-east coast.

Bolivian President Evo Morales said on Sunday he would accept international help to combat wildfires raging in his country’s south-east. Bolivia suspended election campaigning on Monday to deal with the voracious fires that have devastated more than 9,500km2 of forest and grassland.